Friday, April 17, 2009

Darkness (Spain, 2002)

At the latest, since [REC] began making waves in 2007 (and promptly got remade in the USA as Quarantine in 2008 (trailer)), the Spaniard Jaume Balagueró is no longer a totally unfamiliar name to fans of contemporary euro-horror. Darkness, from 2002, is the first his films using "international" names – namely, Anna Paquin, Lena Olin, Iain Glen and Giancarlo Giannini (Canadian, Swedish, Scottish and Italian, respectively) – and thus it is perhaps understandable why Miramax/Dimension picked it up for North American distribution. They chose to edit the film down by roughly 10 minutes to get a PG-13 release, but having only seen the uncut version I would tend to say the missing 10+ minutes probably did little to the film other than speed it up. Darkness, in its uncut European form, is one slooowwww film, a long dark and dank build-up to an admittedly unexpected (and depressing) ending that nonetheless could have used less padding, more adrenaline and better handling of its actors. Having seen Fragile (2005), The Nameless (1999) and now Darkness, a tendency of Jaume Balagueró is evident: Endangered women (and children) that have the expressiveness of a Prozac-overdoes victim. (Not that the men really fair that better in Darkness: Iain Glen overacts well enough as the freaking father, and Stephan Enquist is convincing as the defeatist son, but when Giancarlo Giannini delivers a wet-rag performance, something is simply wrong.)
The basic storyline is of the old Amityville Horror (1979) vein: Family moves into house, daddy begins to flip out, momma wrings her hands as she ignores the obvious, and the evil incarnate finally pops out of the closet. In this case, the family is an American one that has returned to Spain, the country of daddy's birth. (His mommy took him to the promise land as a child, after he was the only survivor of a group of seven children that disappeared.) In no short time he starts having fits like he used to "ten years ago", the young son not only develops bruises all over his neck but his pencils keep getting eaten by the shadows, dark images flit by the corner of one's eye, and only the daughter seems to realize that something terrible is brewing. Unluckily, no one wants to listen to her except her new Spanish boyfriend (Fele Martínez). They find out the true story behind the house from some guy who is then killed by the evil (although one wonders why the evil even needs to be "freed" if it can already impose a killing darkness on the public subway miles away from the house). And, yes, that other person does indeed have a hidden agenda, one that supports Balagueró's regular (dramaturgical) assumption that some people are simply evil – or, to be more exact, simply serve evil – so no background motivation for why they do what they do is really needed. (Sort of like the political actions of George Bush.) Slow and steady the darkness does spread as everyone does one inexplicably stupid thing after the other until the unexpected (and effective) regurgitation of the last scene of the original Nightmare on Elm Street (1984/trailer).
Jaume Balagueró once said (on the cover of the German DVD release of The Nameless), "When I watch a horror film, I don't want to laugh." Well, while it seems one never laughs during a Balagueró film, one is often left scratching one's head or yawning. This is particularly true of Darkness, which does indeed have a few truly horrendous scenes – the young son (Stephan Enquist) watching from inside the car as his father (Iain Glen) has a paralyzing fit on a rainy street, the evil thing that crawls across the ceiling behind the daughter (Anna Paquin), among others – but the film drags out its mostly clichéd, by-the-number and, until the last scene, predictable story to the point at which the viewer simply loses interest. (The banal telephone scene, for example, was promptly repeated in the next flick I watched: a crappy Sandra Bullock film, for Christ’s sake.) Indeed, the actions and reactions of the characters, and story development in general, is often positively aggravating, so by the time the time the scares kick in, if you aren’t already asleep you probably won’t give a damn anyway.
To his defence, Jaume Balagueró has a lot of style, but style – like those stupid quick-cut shock images that he uses way too often in his films – only goes so far before it wears thin. And thus, as Dr. Gore (who, admittedly, saw the PG-13 version) puts it in his review of the film on his blog: “The audience shrugs and gives Darkness a resounding Ho Hum."

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